World War II took its toll on the staff of all nursing departments at the Coast Hospital, with its nursing sisters serving in all theatres of war − the Middle East, Europe and the Pacific.
Some were lost in Singapore and in the sinking of the hospital ship Centaur. Many were mentioned in dispatches: Sister Rochester was awarded the Royal Red Cross and Sister Geddes was the first senior sister of the RAAF in New South Wales.
At the time war was declared, 96 of the hospital’s staff and many former trainees served in the forces overseas.
Except for the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS), nurses were the only females to serve outside of Australia in any capacity for much of World War II. Around three and a half thousand Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) nurses served overseas, with 71 losing their lives − never to return home.
To appreciate fully the role that Australia’s nurses have played during times of war and crisis, a visit to the Prince Henry Hospital Trained Nurses Association Nursing and Medical Museum is highly recommended.
The following profiles are a tribute to just two of the courageous women who served their country during the Second World War.
The Australian Hospital Ship (AHS) Centaur was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine off the coast of North Stradbroke Island, Queensland, on 14 May 1943. Of the 332 medical personnel and civilian crew aboard, only 64 survived the ordeal.
Among those rescued Sister Ellen Savage, a member of the AANS, was the only surviving nurse from 12 aboard.
Despite suffering severe bruising, a fractured nose, burst ear drums, a broken palate and fractured ribs, Savage managed to join other survivors on a makeshift raft. Concealing her own injuries, she assisted the others, many with severe burns. She raised their morale with group prayer and recitation of the rosary, and supervised the rationing of their sparse water and food supplies. Thirty-six hours later they were rescued by the destroyer, USS Mugford.
In 1944, for ‘conspicuous service and high courage’, Ellen Savage was awarded the George Medal for her role during the 36-hour wait for rescue, providing medical care, boosting morale, and displaying great personal courage.
Savage resumed nursing in Newcastle in 1943, where she remained matron of the hospital’s chest unit at Rankin Park from 1950 until ill-health forced her to resign in 1967.
After attending an Anzac Day reunion on 25 April 1985 she collapsed outside Sydney Hospital. She died that day and was buried in Northern Suburbs Cemetery.
In 1941, aged 25, Vivian Bullwinkel enlisted in the AANS. She was posted to the 13th Australian General Hospital and sailed for Malaya. Faced with the Japanese invasion of the Malay Peninsula, the hospital shifted to Singapore Island in January 1942.
With the fall of Singapore imminent, it was decided to evacuate the nurses. Late on 12 February 1942 Bullwinkel was with the last group of nurses, along with patients and women and children, to sail from the doomed island on the SS Vyner Brooke. Next night Japanese bombers found the ship in the Banka Strait. It was attacked and sunk. Bullwinkel drifted for hours clinging to a lifeboat before she struggled ashore on Banka Island with other survivors.
When Japanese troops arrived, they gathered 22 nurses together and ordered them into the sea, where they machine-gunned them. ‘The girls fell one after the other‘. Sister Bullwinkel, badly wounded and feigning death, was the only survivor.
After some time had elapsed, Bullwinkel managed to get back to the now deserted beach, where she found a wounded British soldier from another massacre. They hid out for 12 days, and she cared for the man until he died. Eventually, she surrendered again to the Japanese, but made no mention of the massacre. She was interned with other nurses and endured a further three years of hardship and brutality before her release enabled her to tell her harrowing story.
After the war Bullwinkel was active in military and civilian nursing. She was involved in veterans’ affairs and with philanthropic committees. She married in 1977, becoming Mrs Vivian Statham. She died on 3 July 2000 in Perth, Western Australia.
A Coast Chronicle – The History of the Prince Henry Hospital, CR Boughton
Department of Veterans Affairs ‘The Sinking of the Centaur’
Australian War Memorial
Author − Jane Bannister